The Sad And Tragic Life Of Maria Hopps
There is no shortage of adventure and passion in the stories of my forebears, but this isn’t one of them. It’s the story of a woman who spent her life caring for children yet tragically struggled to have children of her own.
December 1854 was warmer than usual and Maria Jarvis arrived as an early gift on Christmas Eve. She was born the second daughter of my great great grandfather, Charles Robert Owen Jarvis and his wife, Maria. She was destined to become my great aunt.
Her birth certificate records her birth at 14 Park Street in Limehouse, a small two-room cottage that was the home of Charles and his wife, his first daughter Elizabeth, his mother Elizabeth Jarvis, and his sister Martha Babbage and her family. The house was a family affair. In total, there were nine people living in the two room cottage that had no running water, no toilet and no electricity.
She spent her childhood in the East End of London, where the day-to-day struggle of life was the hardest in England. Her elder sister, Elizabeth, died in the cholera epidemic of 1866, making her the eldest surviving daughter, and as such, she took on many of the tasks of caring for her siblings. She was especially close to her mother, but the whole family was tight-knit. During her childhood her father worked hard building iron steamships and travelling the world to deliver them. When she was 15, he set off on an expedition to Africa to abolish slavery in the upper reaches of the Nile and didn’t return for four years.
Her family weathered the hardships of the East End well, primarily due to her father’s success in his career. But when he returned from Africa, a financial crisis had gripped the shipbuilding industry on the River Thames and work was hard to find. In 1878, Maria moved with the rest of her family to Middlesbrough where her father had just started a job as a Shipwright Surveyor working for the board of trade.
Maria was 24 years old when she took up residence in Middlesbrough - well past the typical marrying age of the time and she didn’t have an occupation or employable skill. Up to that point, she had spent her entire life helping her mother with the domestic duties, which to a greater extent involved her assisting with her 7 siblings, the youngest of whom had only been born two years earlier in 1876.
In 1881, she met John Wood Hopps, an engineer and turner, and they were married in September 1881. John Wood Hopps was 4 years younger than Maria and had lost his father at the age of 5. His mother then re-married their servant - William Brunton.
With Maria’s wedding over, John Wood Hopps returned with his new bride to the home she shared with her mother and settled in. He continued to work while his wife continued helping her mother with her children. It was only a matter of time until she would have her own to care for.
On May 6th 1882, Maria Hopps gave birth to her first child and he was named Charles Robert William Hopps. The Hopps name was secured for another generation. In some respects, by delivering a son, Maria had given her husband the heir that he needed to ensure the family prospered in the next generation. But it was a sweet omen before a tragic sequence of births.
In January 1884, her first daughter arrived and they named her after her mother - Maria. Six months later, on July 3rd 1884, Maria died of diarrhea and exhaustion - she likely suffered from what we today describe as rotavirus. Today there is a vaccination to combat rotavirus but that didn’t exist for poor Maria. She was buried in Ormesby cemetery in Middlesbrough on July 5th 1884.
On January 25th 1886, Maria gave birth to another girl and named her Jane Alice Hopps. She died of convulsions after 10 days on February 5th 1886 and was buried on February 9th in Linthorpe cemetery in grave number 4245B in Middlesbrough.
On October 25th 1888, Maria gave birth prematurely to a daughter and named her Maria after her dead sister. Maria lived for four days, the doctor certifying the death as a result of the child's immaturity. She was buried on November 1st 1888 in grave 5506B in Linthorpe Cemetery in Middlesbrough.
In June 1890, Maria gave birth to a son. He was named after his grandfather - William Brunton Hopps. He died six weeks later on July 26th 1890 of bronchitis and severe convulsions and was buried on July 28th in grave 6209B in Linthorpe Cemetery in Middlesbrough.
In August 1891, Maria gave birth to a daughter, Ada Maud Hopps. It was clear from the outset that Ada Maud was clinging to life. The Hopps rushed to baptize her on August 23rd 1891 perhaps in the hope it would change their luck. Ada Maud survived for one month before dying on the 17th September 1891 of marasmus - severe malnutrition. I can only speculate, but in 1891 there was little knowledge of the nutritional needs of a new-born child - breast feeding was pretty much what was done and no baby milk formula existed. There were few wet nurses, and wet nursing had declined in popularity in the late 19th century due to an emotional argument made by medical researchers. As such, if Maria was unable to breastfeed her child, or the child would not nurse, her chances of survival were slim. Ada Maud was buried in grave 7444A in Linthorpe Cemetery in Middlesbrough on September 19th 1891.
On September 22nd 1892, Maria gave birth to a daughter, Jessie May Hopps. Jessie survived for two months before succumbing to bronchitis. In her final hours of life, Maria had Jessie May baptized in a private ceremony on November 22nd at All Saints Church in Middlesbrough. One day later, Jessie May died on November 23rd 1892. She was buried in grave 8019A in Linthorpe Cemetery in Middlesbrough on November 26th 1892.
On August 26th 1893, Maria delivered a son, a boy she named William Hopps. William survived for four days before dying of debility - the Victorian medical term for exhaustion and lack of movement. He was buried on September 2nd in Linthorpe Cemetery, Middlesbrough. His grave is unknown.
On August 28th 1895, Frederick William Hopps was born - and he became only the second child to survive beyond his infancy.
But that is not all. Maria actually gave birth to twelve children in her lifetime, of which ten died in infancy. My research has found nine of those children but three are missing. Between 1882 and 1895, a span of thirteen years, she had spent seven and a half years pregnant with only two children to show for it.
Of he ten children that died, they never survived longer than six months. Three of the ten did not survive more than a few hours after their birth and didn't last long enough to be formally given a name or a birth certificate. Having copiously searched burial records, there is no record of them being buried either.
Only two of Maria's children survived their first year, and both went on to adulthood - two brothers, Charles Robert William Hopps and Frederick William Hopps.
So why did Maria lose so many children?
One factor may have been geographic - Middlesbrough was a very polluted city in the late 1880’s, primarily due to the steel and coal industries. That pollution would continue building throughout the early 20th century, with the war years being dubbed “the slaughter of the innocents” due to the high incidence of child mortality. To compare Middlesbrough to other cities, the child mortality rate in Middlesbrough was 143 deaths by age one per one thousand births. In other cities the average was 99. But statistically that would mean Maria should have lost 2 or 3 children in infant mortality rather than 10.
Apart from the pollution, Middlesbrough was also experiencing a population boom as Victorian industrialists focused on turning the town into an industrial city at breakneck speed. In 1862 William Gladstone, the prime minister, had described the grown of Middlesbrough as an “infant Hercules”, and voiced concerns that inadequate attention was being paid to ensure that the infrastructure of the area was capable of handling the population boom. It was an acknowledged fact that medical facilities in Middlesbrough didn’t keep up with the pace of change in the city until well after the first world war.
Another factor could well have been disease. Middlesbrough was a large port that inadvertently brought diseases from foreign shores to which the indigenous Middlesbrough population had little resistance. It was simply a town of ill health. For example, the spanish flu in 1918 killed 200 people and affected 5000 children. Occurrences of measles were 17 times higher in Middlesbrough than the national average. A pneumonia epidemic in 1888 was so virulent and specific to the local area that it was forever dubbed the Middlesbrough Pneumonia. But Maria’s children typically didn’t live long enough to get most of the ailments that affected children. They died while still babies.
Housing was also a consideration. As Middlesbrough boomed, housing was rapidly built to deal with the burgeoning population. Many of those houses were built on damp low-lying fields which were not suitable for accommodation, allowing diseases such as pneumonia to flourish. Many of the houses built in the latter half of the 19th century were condemned and demolished as slums in the 1930s.
One other possibility is that Maria had a blood-type of rhesus negative - something that my cousin does indeed have. A pregnant woman with rhesus-negative blood carrying a rhesus positive baby results in the mother producing anti-bodies that may effect subsequent pregnancies. This is one of a number of potential medical issues that may have impacted Maria's ability to deliver and sustain her babies.
And finally, medical knowledge was slim in comparison to today. The rhesus negative blood-type issue discussed in the last paragraph was unknown, for example. Doctors treated patients for various ailments without full understanding of the underlying cause. Specific diseases were all lumped into a general category due to that misunderstanding, resulting in generic treatment. Medicine was primitive. Antibiotics and penicillin didn’t exist. And even if you could find a doctor, there was no National health Service to pay for it, so you needed money to get a doctors appointment. And the medical practice of the time did not fully understand infant diseases and had little knowledge of the importance of nutrition to a new-born child.
Perhaps Maria was just incapable of looking after her children? I doubt that was the case either. Maria had spent her entire childhood looking after her mother’s children and in actual fact, her mother was present at all Maria’s births and lived in the same house. Between the two of them, they had personally experienced the birth of at least 21 children.
I believe that poor Maria lost her children in infancy not of her own contrivance but rather as a combination of the medical conditions of the time and the place where they were living. And I don’t know whether Maria felt like Middlesbrough was a factor in her losses, but in 1898, Maria took her husband, her two surviving children and her mother and returned to London. Her brother Charles chose to do exactly the same thing and moved with her.
By 1901, Maria Hopps and her family were firmly re-established in London although rather than the East End, they had chosen to live south of the River Thames in Plumstead, a town in the borough of Woolwich. Living at 58 Vernham Road, John Wood Hopps was an engineer and maker of machinery. The house also was home to her two sons, her mother (now aged 69), and her brother Charles and his wife Henrietta.
It was in 1907 that Maria and John Wood Hopps saw their first son, Charles, marry Annie (Anna) Woronowski, the daughter of a Polish family. They would ultimately go on to produce five children.
By 1911, Maria had moved to Lewisham, settling into 14 South Vale Road in Blackheath - a pretty three-storey house that contained three generations - John Wood Hopps was working as an engine turner. Maria was dealing with the domestic duties. Her eldest son Charles was the assistant manager at a piano saloon, his wife also living at the address. Her only other surviving child, Frederick, was the shop boy at the same piano saloon. And finally, Maria’s mother, now 78 years old.
The bond between Maria and her mother was exceptional. From the day Maria was born, she had lived in the same house as her mother - by 1911, they had spent every single day of 56 years together.
There is no information to track the decline of Maria’s mother, but her old age turned into senility sometime between 1911 and 1920. She had been left nearly 200 pounds in the will of her dead husband and it was clearly gone. At some point she was admitted to the Deptford Guardians Institution, a charitable organization set up to assist senior people without the financial means to support themselves. The Guardians Institute was picky in who they chose to admit, but they took Maria’s mother and cared for her.
In June 1920, Maria’s other son, Frederick, married Dorothy Emma Robinson. Maria was finally an empty-nester. Frederick and his wife would go on to produce one child.
The winter of 1920-21 was cold and frigid in London. Maria’s mother, Maria Jarvis (nee Vaughan) died on January 18th 1921 and was buried in Ladywell Cemetery in a pauper’s grave with 21 other people. Elsewhere on this website you can read about her story and my journey to visit her grave.
Four years later, in June 1925, John Wood Hopps died at the age of 67. Maria Hopps was now on her own. John Wood Hopps was buried in grave L/Con/424 in Hither Green Cemetery in Lewisham on June 25th 1925.
After 1925, official records disappear on the whereabouts of Maria Hopps. She was 92 when she died. She was buried in the same grave as her husband - L/Con/424 in Hither Green Cemetery on February 21st 1947.
Her eldest son, Charles Robert William Hopps died shortly afterwards in April 1951, age 68. He was buried with his mother and father, in Hither Green Cemetery in the same grave L/Con/424 on April 21 1951.
It was on May 17th 2017 that I took the train south from central London and then took a bus to Hither Green Cemetery. The grave plot plan I had been given gave me the approximate location of the grave but no other details.
I was emotionally tied to Maria Hopps. Although to this day my great great grandfather is my hero, Maria was his eldest surviving daughter and I was keen to understand every branch of the family. Her struggle with childbirth had had an emotional impact on me. I felt nothing but empathy and sorrow for her ordeal.
As I entered Hither Green Cemetery with my Mum, we followed the map until we got to the approximate location of her grave. Then we searched. We systematically scanned every grave looking for the name Hopps. We knew there were three people buried in the same place - Maria Hopps, John Wood Hopps and Charles Robert William Hopps.
After an hour and half of searching, we had found nothing. It was disappointing and frustrating. In my desperation I had expanded my search to neighbouring plots in the faint hope that suddenly she would reveal herself, but nothing. We boarded the bus back to Lewisham and caught a train back to central London. Where are you Maria?
But I was not to be thwarted. Part of my frustration was that Lewisham Council had outsourced the information about grave plots to a company called deceasedonline.com, which I personally find in bad taste. So once back in London, I sent an email to Lewisham Council pointing out that the maps provided by deceasedonline were basically useless. A lady called Sandra was quick to reply to me informing me that the Hopps grave had no headstone. It was now obvious that I could never have found it. Sandra offered to connect me with the superintendent of the cemetery who would lead me to the grave.
On May 24th, I returned to Hither Green Cemetery and met Rob. He had worked at Hither Green for ten years and had graciously taken the time to mark Maria’s plot for me.
Maria is indeed buried, with her husband and eldest son, in an unmarked anonymous plot. It was rather emotional to me to know that I was standing within a few feet of what remained of her. Of all the people in my family tree, Maria Hopps has, by far, the most heart-rending story. Her struggle to breathe life into her children turned into cruel charade. I have no idea how it affected her emotionally but I can’t imagine her ordeal was anything but harrowing.
I spent a few silent minutes with Maria, her husband and son. I’m not a religious person, but I did find myself talking to her and asking her questions. I just wanted to better understand her suffering.
She was born Maria Jarvis on Christmas Eve 1854. As a woman in Victorian England, she knew that her entire role in life was to marry and deliver a sufficient number of children so that the family could prosper and then support her and her husband in old age. That was how things worked. Yet she failed in her task, taking her misery and sadness to her grave 92 years later. Rest in peace, Maria.
If you would like to visit Maria’s grave, here are comprehensive directions to get you to it:
Maria’s grave is located at the red dot in the map shown above. Follow the red dotted line to until you find the grave of Lewis Irvin Hobbs. To the left of that grave, you’ll find the grave of William Stubbs. You should be looking at the following:
Take the path between those two grave and walk inside, past the first two outer rows of graves. You will now be standing facing graves that are at 90 degrees to the graves on the outer perimeter. Continue in the same direction toward the centre of the burial plot, past two graves, the first of which is Emily Rumsey and the second of which is a cross dedicated to “our only son”. Maria’s grave is the unmarked plot right next to the cross. You will find indentation in the ground to indicate where the grave is - a natural result of the coffin collapsing within the plot.
Finally, let me end this post with an appeal: Maria Hopps had two children who went on to have families of their own. Some of you are still out there somewhere. I would love to hear from you and I would love to get a photograph of her. If you know someone related to Maria Hopps, please let me know.